Edited extracts from “Jack of All Trades: And His Family”, the autobiography of Peter Inchbald, Managing Director ca.1956-1964.
Edited by Guy Inchbald
George Walker was a man of great technical and innovative ability who learnt his chemistry from a Dr Branson. Henry Hall was a Worcester solicitor and a man of business. When electroplating was invented in 1843, Walker, financed by Hall, set up the first plant in Sheffield, their formal partnership dating from 1845. Though Elkington’s of Birmingham may have been marginally ahead in developing the process, nevertheless right up to my own day W & H made a great song and dance about having electroplated ‘the first useful articles’ in Britain, and for all I know the world.
Hall married Ann Bingham and in 1856 her sixteen-year-old nephew John joined the nineteen employees of Walker & Hall, at a salary of a pound a quarter. John's younger brother Charles also became a partner.
It was John Bingham who made his uncle’s little firm world class. His achievement is not documented because during World War II a bomb destroyed the documents, but his memory remained alive.
Many of those I worked with had beforehand worked with him. The main thing they added to the record was the showmanship—which reveals that rigid honesty as a shade flexible. He would speak of two, not one, thousand ‘hands’ at the Electro Works in Howard Street, which considering his workers had one on each arm was not strictly a lie. And a decisive element of his success was the way he avoided the middleman, using instead the local stockrooms set up for his catering reps. The stockrooms became showrooms. A 50% discount would be offfered on the list price. There was hilarity if anyone paid it; when halved it was maybe ten per cent less than in the shops—at least it was in my day. Which was generally fair enough because the showrooms, except for the great Holborn Viaduct branch destroyed in the Blitz, were upstairs and had no shop windows.
Colonel Sir John Edward Bingham, Bart, VD, JP died in 1915. He was seventy-five years old, still working longer hours than most of his employees. He employed a thousand hands at Howard Street, with his silver, cutlery and plate renowned throughout the Empire. The battlemented tower of Electro Works, topped with the triangular W & H flag, crowned the skyline opposite the Midland station and was the first landmark most visitors to Sheffield would see. He had fifteen British showrooms, with others in New Zealand and Australia and a strong presence at the Cape. His paternal care for his workers was renowned and included non-contributory pensions. He also gifted Bingham Park to the people of Sheffield. He had served two terms, which was almost unheard of, in the prestigious office of Master Cutler.
The business his son took over as Sir Albert was at the peak of its success. But from then the decline began. This may not have been all Sir Albert’s fault: the times were not prosperous, but though he kept his hands on the business his life didn’t centre on it as his father’s had. I once saw a table showing each year’s profits since Sir John’s death, and taken year on year the firm had no more than broken even.
Even during World War II, on government light engineering contracts—things like alloy pressings and electrical assemblies for aircraft—priced on a fixed percentage over costs so that most firms prospered, Walker & Hall was making losses. Either nobody knew the true costs or Sir Albert undercharged from sheer patriotism. Perhaps there were elements of both. Certainly I was unimpressed with his finance director, name of Slater, whom I remember from a week I spent at the works after I left school in 1937.
The designer MrFisher introduced art deco to the catalogue.
On Sir Albert’s death in 1945, his solicitor, executor and trustee Sir Douglas Branson took over as chairman. By 1953 Walker and Hall was in bad shape and unless one of the family took the helm we would have to sell for a pittance. I volunteered.
The main manufactured product was, as always, EPNS (electroplated nickel silver) tableware. The rest were cutlery, sterling silver, Britannia Metal or BM and cases, canteens and the like. The works departments, self-contained and with differing internal systems, were Holloware, Spoon and Fork, Cutlery (knives), Silver Holloware, BM, Plating, Case, Repair, Loan and No. 2. Repair, which handled a huge range of products, required extra special skills, while the important and profitable No. 2 bought in finished goods to supplement the range. The engineering department could tackle most building jobs as well as installing and maintaining machinery and I think the toolmaking, and as well as the Counting House they had sections for estimating, packing, despatch and export shipping. There was one van or at the most two, and only the reps had company cars.
They had showrooms in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Bristol, Cardiff, Bournemouth, and two in London. The Sidney showroom had gone, though there were agents there and in South Africa. Walker & Hall New Zealand, to whom they sent out semi-manufactured goods for finishing, though entitled to use the trademarks, was completely independent. A typical showroom would be over a bank, say, or a shop; it would have a manager, one or two sales assistants, a clerk-typist, a porter-packer, a part-time plate-cleaner, and a rep. Oxford Street in London had three showroom salesmen, whom I joined temporarily, a full-time porter, a full-time watch repairer, a full-time packer-cum-cleaner and at least two girls in the office, and two reps on the road. Though the showrooms were first class bases for the reps, the catering business was a cut-throat affair and the retailers were our often bitter enemies. Once we were capable of analysing these things we found that our over-the-counter trade alone was profitable, the catering business helped with the overheads, and not surprisingly the Dickensian rabbit-warren of a works was losing money.
Besides Branson, the other members of the board were my father Major Peter Inchbald, the Oxford Street branch manager Ted Nicholson, and two joint managing directors, Tuppenny Lee (in cahrge of sales) and Bill Longden. The company secretary, responsible also for the accounts because no one had followed Slater, was Harry Nolan, also successor to R J Lewis, who had doubled as Sir Albert’s private secretary. Jim Ward was the grandson of Heber Ward, Sir John Bingham’s general manager, and on the shop floor it was the same. It was a truly family business.
Not yet on the board, I sat in on its monthly meetings, and I was amazed at the monthly figures. One set, in an archaic terminology I never mastered, was a run-down on the firm’s bank statements. The other was the number of ounces of silver deposited in the plating shop. And that was it.
Within months Lee retired, leaving Longden as sole MD, with Nicholson now sales director and the Liverpool manager Harold Bagshaw promoted to Oxford Street, where I was under him for a good year. Nicholson, with branch experience in Nottingham before Manchester, had been on the board since 1951.
While at the London showroom I was also studying silversmithing once a week at the Royal College of Art. There I befriended a fellow student nearing the end of his studies, David Mellor. A Sheffielder, he soon left to return home and try to find a producer for some modern table cutlery he had made as a student. This was by any standards exquisite. We tried it on Walker & Hall. You never saw such long faces. But make it we did, though unavoidably coarsened, with the knife handles ivory to go with the silver version and for the plated one the trade’s normal white xylonite, i.e. celluloid—our trade name was ivoril. I got it called Pride.
When Pride appeared in Oxford Street the staff would not sell it. Till in marched a stranger with his bride, his eye fell on the Pride display and he called across the room, delighted, ‘Here! Darling! Come and look at this!’ and took away his new family silver. The stranger turned out to be Ivan Sutton, an impresario of small, choice concerts in small, choice venues and also a liveryman of the Goldsmiths’ Company. Then came the Design Centre Award. A few years later thirty per cent of our electroplated cutlery sales were of Pride.
After two years I moved to Sheffield, as a director with responsibility for design. I wanted us to be ready for the huge revolution in taste, and therefore demand, which I was convinced was just round the corner.
I cut nine-tenths of the existing loss-making products which hardly sold. Our resident designer, Peter Austin was no innovator and new products other than David’s weren’t being brought in. The work was mostly permutating existing components for short-run bespoke orders.
With David Mellor now our official design consultant, we produced a new Pride teaset. His hallmarked silver prototypes are still beautiful to this day, though small for normal domestic use, and the leather-covered handles get hot. Like the cutlery they had to be coarsened for factory production, but they too won a Design Centre Award. Unlike the cutlery however the teaset never sold well.
Design did not take all my time, and first aid was needed elsewhere. Bill Longden brought Jim Ward back from Manchester and made him works manager. But more was needed. When Nolan died his successor was Cliff Loveday, qualified in both branches of accountancy. He got purchase tax, which was charged on our gross, i.e. fictitious price, related to what we actually received.
By the summer of 1959 I was joint managing director, with Jimmy also on the board and my opposite number, Bill Longden, close to retirement. Ted Nicholson had already retired and been replaced by ‘Scottie’ Thomson. A year or two later Longden retired. With only Branson, Jimmy and myself left on the board, Jim and Cliff and Scottie became directors. We met weekly as the firm’s management committee.
Our shop floor relations were pretty good; there was a residue of respect for the management going back at least to the pre-war Great Depression, when though everyone went on short time no one was ever laid off. But EPNS in particular was heavily unionised, and working practices were strongly entrenched and defended. The works council’s minutes were published throughout the works, and its role in open management, in eroding the us and them mentality, was invaluable.
There were closed shops in the full trade union sense. The silversmiths’ union, covering most of our production including spoons and forks, was scared and backward, the cutlery lot more businesslike.
When a piecework job had to be costed the shop would get together and fix its price. Once agreed, the price went to the shop as a whole and the workers divided it up according to their own rules. And it was the shop who decided how many men and how many apprentices could work there—and apprenticeship, always to an individual craftsman, was for seven years and on completion entitled the apprentice to work only in that shop—so if the shop, like most, was on piecework he could not ‘go datal’ and be paid by the hour, as was done for the finer work. This was out of tune with the times and our urge to economise and tidy up, and though we never antagonised the unions we did bring the costing and wages systems up to date. Cliff recalls the skilled men’s horror when the cost office clerk discussed their personal rates of pay with them, and writes, ‘Such things had always been “extremely confidential.”’
Under our gentle massage even the silverware union was getting more flexible. One by one the shops accepted work study, seen then as essential to good management, and an outstanding apprentice in the EP Holloware silversmiths’ (mainly assembly) shop, which was piecework, was allowed to go datal and work in silver. But my goodness it was slow!
The time-honoured slow, skilled, filthy and dangerous process of spoon and fork buffing was done by women, against a fast spinning leather wheel, with a mixture of oil and sand that left them black as colliers. The friction heated the workpiece and they protected their fingers with a strip of rag wound round them, and if a loose end got caught on the wheel it was nigh on lethal. The buffing girls of Sheffield were an institution, almost a caste, a tough lot, to whom, in the past, in their distinctive red headscarves, wise men gave way in the street. We began modernisation with Pride, but union practices ran deep.
Our production was still craft-based and labour-intensive, and the quality had become debased. The detail was often slapdash and the stamped decoration blurred from worn dies and ham-fisted buffing. In any event, except for very grand and special uses, I realised that silverware must be on the way out. The answer lay in stainless steel.
The trigger was an enquiry from J & J Wiggin of Bloxwich whether we would develop and make a range of stainless cutlery for them. Their design consultant was Robert ‘Bob’ Welch, David’s contemporary at the Royal College, who had made stainless a special study, and they wanted him to design it.
We preferred David and did a deal. He and Bob would collaborate on the design; we would tool up and make the range, and each firm would sell it as its own under its own name.
It took time and money but it worked. We called our version Spring, they called theirs Camden. Apart from maybe the press-shop work where it hardly mattered, we kept it out of the hands of the silversmiths’ union. Jim Ward set up a little buffing and finishing shop in the country, not far from Renishaw, staffed by local Derbyshire women he trained from scratch. With the economy on a high, Walker & Hall was making a profit!
It was time for something of our own, and with more class. And it was time, we persuaded ourselves, to launch out into volume production—impossible at Howard Street. We settled on the factory of the defunct Bolsover Home Grown Fruit Preserving Company, under an hour away in Derbyshire. We cleaned the jam off the floor and refurbished it, installing modern production machinery from Germany. We called the new pattern Symbol.
We hoped to make our goods acceptable to the retail trade by replacing the famous but fundamentally dishonest 50% discount. Edinburgh and Liverpool had ground floor showrooms and we turned them into virtually retail shops, charging straight retail prices off which we allowed established customers 10%. Their operation was run by a department store man John Thomas, who added new lines of bought-in goods.
On paper it ought to have worked. But, sadly, it didn’t. Our losses began to mount and were soon severe. Despite now being the best run firm in the trade, we were heading for disaster.
In 1963 we received an approach from the minions of Charles Clore, one of the take-over artists of the day. He had already taken over Mappin & Webb, Delta Metals and through them Elkington’s. However I do not believe the silverware business was dear to Clore’s heart, he would have been more interested in property. Branson, Jimmy and I, who as the family trustees were the nominal owners of the firm, met round Branson’s desk with Gardiner, Clore's right-hand man and accountant.
Eventually a new, merged company was formed called British Silverware. W & H still existed on paper as a subsidiary, they even made me chairman. Jim and Cliff were on the British Silverware board, which was largely a rubber stamp for the much larger management committee, on which I sat. I had overall charge of design. They made Scottie export manager and Elkington’s man Fordham sales director. Geoffrey Spital from Delta was Elkingtons’ managing director as well as British Silverware’s. Mappin’s provided the financial director Tyrer and works director Denis Collins. Though the only real authority was Gardiner’s.
The result was chaos: customers fuming, orders lost or running six months late, sales figures looking sick.
British Silverware also swallowed Adie Brothers. When I last heard of Adie Bros they were being run by one of Jim’s W & H production control men, Bob Atherton, once our van driver.
In due course British Silverware’s accumulated losses overtook its issued capital, it was wound up and its rump and administrative tail, notably the Walker & Hall branches, of which a few still survive, were turned over to Mappin and Webb.
Updated 7 May 2023